I empathize with cis folks out there. I really do. Especially the advocates. Trans language and pronouns are not easy to grasp without a language lesson. The English language is far from perfect, but imagine being a trans person in a country that speaks a Romance language, like Spanish, where the sex/gender of the subject effects far more words than just pronouns.
I mention this now, because it keeps coming up in trans news and trans community circles.
Just in the last month, Katie Couric, Piers Morgan and Joss Whedon have stepped into the proverbial hornet’s nest of saying the, “Wrong” thing or things, and upsetting a large part of the American trans community in the process.
For the most part, though, I can understand both sides of the issue. The trans community is quie reactionary. Any minority community tends to be reactionary. Especially when they intend to change the paradigm. The key word here is minority. If there are fewer people, sometimes they must be louder to be heard. In the case of feminism, it is not numbers but value, if community in general does not value women as much as men, then again, it takes a louder voice to be heard.
Outrage is often enough, well, I dare not say feigned. Outrage is often a conversational and political tactic. It can be useful at times and it can also be counter productive.
This brings me to Joss Whedon.
When asked on twitter what makes a strong female character, he tweeted back, they must have “Strength, value community and not have peeny/balls.”
Now, that was not the greatest joke ever told, but the outrage that emerged from the trans community surprised me. Is Joss Whedon trans phobic? Such topics popped up all over the blogosphere.
Oy! How many words can be written about a smaller than 144 character tweet? Tweeting is not the forum for nuanced and in depth replies. But shame on Joss, I guess, because he failed to mention that some strong female characters could also have a peeny and balls.
His point clearly, to me at least, was a strong character IS a strong character, and if you wish to make a strong female character, start by creating a strong female character. There is no difference between strong characters of any gender, unless they are not written to be strong.
Of course, I probably went past 144 characters with that simple translation.
Whedon, made a mistake that caused a backlash. He failed to mention trans people in a tweet. He also, mentioned not having a peeny or balls, a sensitive subject amongst trans women as I will address later in this post.
Shame on you Mr. Whedon, creator of strong female characters, the 2nd major lesbian character on American television, champion of ensemble and teamwork in your television shows and movies, celebrator of characters who can transform, grow and be accepted by their former foes. Most of all, shame on you for never writing a strong female character with a peeny and balls. Boycott!!!
Sigh… such trans phobia.
Now, I am going to lump Katie Couric’s interviews and Piers Morgan’s interviews together, in order to discuss the American media’s way of handling trans topics and the trans community’s response.
Katie Couric interviewed two trans women, Carmen Carrera, a model and former contestant on, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, and Laverne Cox, an actress currently on, “Orange is the New Black”. The interviews were back to back beginning with Carrera. The conversation started about an online petition for Carrera to become a Victoria’s Secret model before Couric asked about plastic surgery. Carrera admitted to getting her nose and breasts done, and then, Couric asked about whether or not Carrera had or intended to have, “The operation”. Carrera explained how that was a private issue and she would rather not talk about it.
Then Laverne Cox was interviewed, and their discussion was mostly about playing a trans character on a television show. Eventually, Couric mentioned Carrera’s response to the surgery question and asked Cox’s thoughts about that. Cox agreed with Carrera. It is a private thing. She went on to say that there is more to trans people than the operation and to focus on the genitals inadvertently objectifies trans women. This worries Cox because there are other, more important issues concerning the trans community including disproportionate amounts of violence, homicide and very high rates of unemployment.
On to Piers Morgan’s interview of author, Janet Mock. Mock was on the show to promote her book, “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity and so Much More”. It was a fairly lengthy interview spit in two by a commercial break. For the duration of the interview, the subtitle below Mock and Morgan, explaining the interview, as news channels tend to do, read, “Was a Boy Until 18”. Much of the interview was directed at Mock being a boy or a man until she transitioned, how she told her boyfriend she is trans, how pretty she is… etc. The interview concluded with Morgan telling Mock how he, “Can’t think of anyone better to be out there promoting all this than you.”
In both Couric and Morgan’s case, the trans community as a whole objected. I think the objection to the genital question is pretty straight forward, who would want to be asked such a thing on national television? The objection to Morgan’s interview is a bit more complex and nuanced so I will start with that.
Four or five days after the interview, Mock tweeted at Morgan that she was not born a man, that she also, was not born a boy and she even dropped a slightly censored, “F” bomb in one of her tweets. The next day, Morgan had Mock on his show again to explain herself. He interviewed her for about sixteen minutes and then spent another five or so minutes discussing the interview with a panel of three pundits.
Unfortunately, Mock never really explained what was so wrong about saying she was born a boy and was formerly a man. She came close a few times, but I expected her to be much clearer, since she must have known it would be the focus of the interview. Also, as an author, words are her trade. And yet, it must be flustering to be berated by a host on national television.
That said, Morgan, a mediocre interviewer at best, was clearly hurt by the outrage he had been subjected to since Mock’s tweets riled up the trans community. Why, he wanted to know, didn’t Mock just say something during the first interview?
Morgan kept insisting he was a huge supporter of the trans and LGBT community. I do not doubt he feels that way about himself.
After the interview came the pundits. Unfortunately I have not found a complete video of this segment, only partial, but I feel like I saw most of it. Amy Holmes defended Morgan for the most part, like the professional talking head she is. Marc Lamont Hill defended Mock, and frankly did a better job of explaining her position than Mock did herself. Unfortunately, he had to compete with three other people for air time. Ben Ferguson was just an unsympathetic prick, insisting Mock was feigning outrage to sell more books, suggesting that her tweets were planned by Mock and her publicist to garner more attention, he also yelled, “She was a boy! She was a man!”
Back to Couric, who at the end of the week following her interviews, addressed the criticism sent her way. She explained that she wanted to leave the interview intact both on air, and online to serve as a teachable moment for her and her viewers.
From where I sit, Couric handled the situation exponentially better than Morgan, and Cox and Carrera handled it better than Mock.
Nobody in their right mind would ask Couric on national television, “So Katie, how’t it goin’ you know, down there? Any recent yeast infections or herpes flare ups?” I think she got the point the moment Carrera refused to answer her question.
Also, Couric would never ask Neil Patric Harris on national television, “Since you are a gay man, and I am sure all kinds of straight people are wondering; what is your favorite sexual position? Are you a top or a bottom?”
Mock and Morgan, did things differently and less successfully. Again, back to Joss Whedon, tweets are not a good means for conveying complex and nuanced ideas. I am not quite sure if Mock realized how effective her tweets could be at uniting the ire of the trans community. At the same time, while I credit Morgan for having her on again, he did spend what felt like more time, talking about his own hurt feelings rather than listening to why Mock would object to being labeled, “Born a man” and, “Born a boy”. It is a shame, and they both missed an opportunity to have a grown up discussion about a complex issue.
When it comes to being trans, many trans folk feel as if they were born with a birth defect. The brain insists one thing, the body something else. This is why we have a word for gender, which is conceptual, and sex, which is physical. To hear Mock explain it, as soon as she knew the difference between male and female, she understood herself to be, and identified as female. I can relate. And yes, it does make my eyes cross a bit to see, “Was a Boy Until 18” under her interview for its entire duration, something she may not have even realized at the time.
At the same time, I do feel for Morgan, and perhaps it is just the large dose of estrogen my doctor shot into me this morning. Look, trans semantics are not simple. When I joined an online trans community, I spent about three months saying all kinds of the, “Wrong” thing, only to be gently corrected and I am TRANS. If Morgan considers himself an advocate, well, I feel his pain. I believe he is an advocate. There are all kinds of land mines, and different trans folk become irate about different things. I have never considered Morgan to be a particularly good interviewer, but I have never thought of him as any kind of phobe either.
I have blogged about how my friends, wife and parents are reacting to and adjusting to my transition. They say things that would enrage the trans community quite frequently. This stuff takes time to learn, and practice is needed to consistently say the, “Right” things. If I got all upset whenever someone said something, “Wrong” to me, I would be in the midst of a divorce right now, have driven a wedge between my immediate family, and have no remaining friends to call on for help. We all must pick our battles wisely.
In the case of Janet Mock, her reaction backfired. She was berated on air for three tweets, and then a panel followed up to reinforce the old, “She WAS born a boy!” mantra. What a shame.
Carrera, Cox and Couric fared much better. It was a teachable moment, and it moved the conversation forward. People will be much less likely to ask trans people about their privates, at least in the American media. Yippee!
One more thing of note. I am not oblivious to the fact that none these three women would have been interviewed at all if they were not trans. There is a great deal of curiosity about trans folk. It will take time before we are not seen as a novelty item. Almost everybody knows a homosexual or 90. The same does not apply to trans folk. To complicate things, many trans folk just blend into society after transition, as the goal is to match the life to the brain, most successful transitioners just want a mundane life as the man, woman, androgen… etc. they always knew they were. I am thankful for Mock, Cox and Carrera for doing some heavy lifting for a relatively small and easily misunderstood community.
There are not many of us trans folks. But words ARE important. It is time to teach the masses. But we must be patient and forgiving. There is no reason to expect even the strongest advocate to just inherently know this stuff.
Trans folk are particularly vulnerable to bigotry. Don’t believe me? Find any interview of Cox, Mock or Carrera on YouTube and just start reading the comments. I know, comment sections can bring out the worst in all of us, but it is just the norm for trans folk, not just online, but in public, within families… etc.
Trans folk are often diagnosed with mental conditions above and beyond gender dysphoria, in fact I believe it is more common than not. In a recent poll, over 40% of trans folk have attempted suicide (and that does not count the successful attempts by closeted and uncloseted trans folk). So, perhaps we all can do a better job of listening to the trans community even if it may seem like they are upset about something extremely minor or even irrelevant.